Maryland state police and the state highway administration today fired the first volley in a battle between motorists and boaters at the busy Kent Narrows waterway.
You remember Kent Narrows. It's that place with the quaint little drawbridge five miles east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. You got stuck there while the draw was open Labor Day. You finally got to read "War and Peace" as you waited for the traffic to clear.
State officials feel the drawbridge opens too often for a few yachtsmen while the landbound masses sweat and fume in their steaming chariots. They cited figures indicating that at times as many as 1,000 cars cross the bridge for every boat that needs to get through it.
Sometimes the wait gets ugly. Last summer, for example, one motorist got so "flustrated," in the word of State Police Commander William Hurley, that he raced to the stalled car nearest his and smeared shaving soap over the windshield. "We have fights and rammings all the time," Hurley said.
State officals believe the U.S. Coast Guard, which requires hourly bridge openings to accommodate passing vessels, should cut back the scheduled openings so beach traffic isn't tied up so much during peak weekend hours.
But the Coast Guard, citing an 1899 law that establishes boats' preeminent rights to navigable waterways, intends to keep opening the bridge every hour during the day, with some minor adjustments. It's an impasse.
Among 50 Marylanders who came here today to discuss the bridge problem were aides to U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Charles McC. Mathias, aides to U.S. Reps. Marjorie S. Holt and Roy Dyson, and several state legislators. They gathered at the VFW hall at the behest of the Queen Anne County Commission to listen to the highway and police versions of what looks on the surface like a cut-and-dried case of many suffering for the benefit of a privileged few.
The figures: On summer Fridays an average of 37,800 cars cross the Kent Narrows Bridge, many waiting hourly so a total of 31 boats a day can go through the open draw. On Saturdays there are 44,900 cars and 52 boats; on average Sundays, 35,600 cars and 52 boats.
Typical weekend traffic queues can run as far back as six miles when the bridge is open, said state Highway Administrator M.S. Caltrider, and on the worst weekends the backup can extend 13 or 14 miles. The wait can be from one to three hours, he said.
The traditional schedule calls for hourly bridge openings from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Last year Caltrider asked the Coast Guard to keep the bridge closed from noon Friday to 3 p.m. Saturday for beachbound traffic and all afternoon Sunday so weekend revelers could get home.
The Coast Guard, citing complaints by boaters, responded by keeping the bridge closed for only three hours Saturday mornings, from 7 to 10 a.m., and two hours on Sunday nights, from 5 to 7 p.m.
Not enough, say state officials. Caltrider proposed the expanded bridge closure hours again this winter, but Coast Guard Capt. A.D. Super wrote back to reject the plan, adding, "No significant restrictions to the . . . schedule can be made without creating a situation that is totally unreasonable from the standpoint of navigation."
Elected officials and their representatives attending today's meeting, to which the Coast Guard was not invited, indicated they will seek ways to get the schedule revised through the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the Coast Guard.
Said State Sen. Walter M. Baker (D-Upper Shore), "It might not be what you're fighting but who. You wouldn't think 52 boaters would have this much clout, but one of them might be the secretary of transportation. Is there someone high up in the federal government who has a boat?"
Wayne Creed, the Coast Guard's fifth district bridge administrator, said restricted bridge openings can cause more problems than they cure. Before 1978 the bridge opened only every two hours, he said, but when it did the backup of boats on weekends was so great it took up to 26 minutes to clear the vessels.
He had no record of the amount of shaving cream expended by motorists during those delays.